Congolese-born Belgian rapper Baloji creates a spellbinding mix of old and new sounds with bitingly modern lyrics. They call him ‘the sorcerer’…
The following article, written by Andy Morgan, was published in The Observer, Dec. 3, 2011.
Cowering under a statue called Belgium Bringing Civilisation to The Congo, one of four golden effigies in the entrance hall of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels, there’s a sculpture depicting a miserable African native, naked and blatantly “savage” in the estimation of its colonial creator. For a moment before our interview, Baloji, one of the most innovative rappers and video producers to have emerged from Africa in recent years, loiters near this ludicrous pairing, tall and pensive in his two-piece suit of dark blue plaid, peach pink shirt and Puma trainers.
It’s a telling trinity: the pompous European “father”, the colonised African “son” and Baloji, “the sorcerer” (the meaning of his name in Swahili), standing there all cool and dapper, like the embodiment of a young and ambitious Africa. Baloji is due to start filming his next video, a radical Congolese reworking of the Marvin Gaye song “I’m Going Home”, in the vaults of the museum. He’s even persuaded the museum to part-fund the filming, a monumental feat in itself. Baloji is a fighter and few other African artists demonstrate such bone-headed tenacity in their battles against indifferent record labels and scoffing managers. “What takes two weeks for Kanye West takes me a year,” he says.
Once a member of Starflam, one of Belgium’s most successful hip-hop crews, Baloji began to plough his own furrow in 2007, when he released his first solo album, Hotel Impala. In 2010, he was named one of the year’s breakthrough acts by the influential DJ Gilles Peterson and earlier this year he joined Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. He’s currently limbering up for the worldwide release of album number two, Kinshasa Succursale. It’s an ambitious attempt to marry rap with a glittering casket of African and African diaspora styles, from mellifluous soukous through funk and ragga to the raw sound of traditional urban Congolese music. Some of the songs on Kinshasa Succursale are reworked versions of tracks on Hotel Impala but most are completely new. It could almost be the Congo’s answer to the Beatles’ White Album, a favourite of Baloji’s. In fact, several tracks, including the otherworldly “Karibu Ya Bintou”, which rides an alien riff by Kinshasa’s finest, Konono No 1, are unlike anything that has emerged from Africa before.
But it’s Baloji’s videos that reveal the true extent of the man’s creative power. Self-funded, filmed on location in the Congo by the Belgian directors Spike & Jones and cameraman Nicolas Karakatsanis, Baloji’s video clips for the songs “Le Jour d’Après” and “Karibu Ya Bintou” are mini-masterpieces that draw power from his fascination with cinema and photography (his cousin Sammy Baloji is a well-known Congolese photographer).
He was born Baloji Tshiani in Lubumbashi, Congo, in 1978, the product of an indiscreet liaison between a rich businessman and a local girl. At the age of three he was sent to live with his stepfamily in Belgium, first in Ostend and then in the grim mining town of Liège. When he was seven his father lost most of his assets in the ethnic war that ravaged the east of Congo and promptly disappeared from his life. “Every day I wondered where he was,” Baloji says. “He was my only link with my own blood.”
I ask what it would have been like to meet the 10-year-old Baloji? “Horrible,” he replies with a rueful laugh. “I distanced myself from my family. I was angry and aggressive. I failed all my tests at school, so they considered me retarded.” He began to run with the migrant Sicilian lowlife of the Liege ‘hood, getting up to no good. “Worse than that,” he adds. “I just had nothing to lose.” He ended up in a special school for delinquents run by nuns, but gave up his formal education at the age of 15. Then rap came along and saved him. Thanks to his brothers, who danced professionally with Technotronic (of “Pump Up the Jam” fame), he discovered American and then French hip-hop. Tonton David and the Marseille crew IAm were early influences, teaching him that his flow didn’t have to be simplistic. “This was the first time I heard music that talked about people like me and my mates.”
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in Liège did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everything… PiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the Smiths…”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium – he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 – Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album – a kind of soundtrack without a film – to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years. That is how Hotel Impala was born.
Baloji went “home” to the Congo later the same year to film the first video and give the record to his mother in person. He met her in a restaurant in Lubumbashi, dressed “like a little prince”. But his mother couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a rich businessman like his father, rather than a struggling musician. The meeting was a disaster. “She was more or less waiting for the dowry she had never been given by my father,” Baloji says. “I didn’t dare give her the record there and then. I waited until the eve of my departure. We saw each other again this year and, once again, it went badly.”
All this family turmoil has not knocked Baloji off course. He’s curious, intelligent and more calmly thoughtful than his bad-boy past might lead you to expect. And his purpose seems clear. “I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.”
It’ll take a special kind of musician to conjure up that mix of heritage, modernity and blistering lyrical flow, a style that values Africa’s past but is also somehow free of it. It’ll take a real baloji perhaps; tall, dapper and fearlessly stubborn.
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